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Lamb tartare with quail egg

Old-World Appeal

by Jen Karetnick | Photography by Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | September 25, 2013

Since spring of this year, municipalities all over the state have been celebrating Hernán Ponce de León’s discovery of our peninsula via a campaign called Viva Florida 500. Correction: Florida municipalities with the exception of Miami have been celebrating. I’m not sure why entities around the Magic City haven’t been participating, except for the fact that most of us who live here stem from Caribbean islands and South American countries where such European “discoveries” are viewed in dim light. But if you like special occasions, anniversaries and whatnot, and feel left out of the hoopla, don’t be bereft. Just make a reservation at The Cypress Room, an elegant, flapper-era bastion of Old Florida located on the southern edge of the Design District, where crystal chandeliers light the way and history hangs from the very walls.

Indeed, along with various framed photos of savanna, beach and Everglades, Florida’s colorful annals come alive in the white-tailed deer and wild-boar heads mounted on dusty rose-patterned wallpaper above a row of tables. You can find the animals’ contributions on the dinner menu, too, or at least those of their relatives, depending on the season. Currently, a grilled antelope chop and slow-cooked filet cap the dozen or so main courses; a starter of frog legs, an Old Florida fave, is reinvigorated with garlic, capers and butter. You can go Southern all the way to dessert, with James Beard-nominated Pastry Chef Hedy Goldsmith’s chess pie—a misnomer of pie chest—offering a custardy mélange of roasted white chocolate and blueberry notes, with an additional cocktail of tarragon, citrus and buttermilk keeping it from being too cloying.

Like James Beard-awarded chef-owner Michael Schwartz’s other restaurants, the menu in this smart, high-end bistro makes the most out of locally farmed items, including mustard greens, kale, chard, fennel and similar bitter vegetables that grow so well in our sandy, rocky soil. If these seem overly familiar to devotees of Schwartz’s and other similarly supplied restaurants, be reassured that the recipes and methods here, courtesy of Schwartz and his chef de cuisine, Roel Alcudia, show a refinement that is reflected in the vintage floral china on which the bread is served. For instance, barbecued quail is quartered and plated over a bed of black lentils, with spoonfuls of pureed butternut squash providing colorful relief.

It’s clear that Schwartz and company aren’t trying to reproduce Michael’s Genuine or any of the group’s other restaurants here. The space, narrow and cozy with an open kitchen at the back and a small bar in the corner, almost requires a more refined, European sensibility. I find it a refreshing departure. Such a philosophy—not just the best of the local product, but the best of the available product—makes dining here a satisfying pleasure, even if you’re just ordering the dry-aged burger with Landaff cheese and onion marmalade. The burger is a rich pleasure, almost too rich to finish, and it arrives at the table with a separate wire basket filled with thick-cut french fries that have been cooked three times: boiled, poached and fried.

Likewise, seafood is both local and sourced from purveyors that are a bit farther away. For instance, the black grouper, a thick filet where a single touch of the fork sets fragile flakes sliding off like little landslides, is indigenous—not to mention delicious, bathed in a shellfish-steeped broth that hints of fennel. An appetizer of royal red shrimp, which are butterflied and sprinkled with coconut and lime, then topped with puffed rice and decorative thins of cucumber, come from our coast as well. These deep-water shrimp never see surface light, and are captured frequently in the spring and summer anywhere from the waters around Pensacola to the Florida Keys. The preparation at The Cypress Room, cool and barely cooked, proves that these shrimp are indeed considered some of the most pliable and tastiest of the species. Still, for all the local fare, a crudo of wild salmon, not aboriginal to Florida waters, is equally as agreeable. The lacy fish is enhanced with green almonds and capers, and a dollop of creme fraiche offers a gratifying contrast.

You don’t have to eat delicately, however, to get a thorough experience at Cypress. I like to take a group along with me to enjoy a whole, wood-grilled fish, such as black grouper or swordfish, the côte du beouf or the rotisserie of the day, which can be veal breast or chicken or any protein that comes to the collective kitchen mind. The chef presents each to the table before he takes it back to the kitchen for slicing. Keep in mind that these dishes, which make for a splashy centerpiece, are meant for two or even more—the chicken, for instance, runs three to four pounds. With an addition of another entree and/or several appetizers, or perhaps an a la carte order of the simply sauteed market vegetables of the day, you’ve got a traditional, rustic family meal that’s equally as big on technique.

By the time dessert comes around, all you may be able to handle is a spoonful or two of the homemade ice creams and sorbets. That, of course, would be a mistake, given Goldsmith’s skills with the mixer, oven and pastry bag, which she takes to a restrained extreme here. Besides, you’ve got to celebrate Florida’s 500th anniversary somehow. It may as well be here.

The Cypress Room
3620 NE Second Ave., Miami
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., noon-2:30pm
Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 6-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 6pm-midnight
Appetizers, $19-$23; main courses, $24-$52; main courses for two, $62-$139; sides, $10; desserts, $13-$16

Plastic, Please
Reservations here require a credit card number and diners will be charged $50 if they cancel without enough notice.

Francophiles, Rejoice!
The smart wine list boasts a small but lovingly curated selection of Burgundies and Bordeaux, both white and red, at various price points.

Beer Bash
Chef Michael Schwartz’s own popular Genuine Home Brew and other favorites, like Due South, are on draft here.

Date Night
The Cypress Room is pitch-perfect for a date. Just keep your voices low, unless you want your neighbors to listen in.

Parking Issues
There’s no need to valet here, should you not want to. There’s a parking lot next to the restaurant and plenty of metered spots.